If I’ve learned anything in my brief time in Seoul, it is that if you open yourself to the world, the world will do the same. What a whirlwind of experience, all condensed into a few short weeks. Moving into a new apartment, New Year’s eve and day, my first experience making home-cooked Korean food and a jimjilbang… the ‘Wow Moments’ just keep coming and each one is unique. I feel myself adapt to a new life, a new city, a starkly different culture.
New Year’s weekend rolled around and it was finally time to move into my school-appointed apartment. At last! Tim had been a wonderful host, but living out of two suitcases got old really fast. What should have been a smooth transition quickly proved to be a huge mess, in more ways than one. My contract replaces that of RJ Teacher (everyone is a teacher here, even the accountant and the janitor), meaning that I take over his classes and his apartment. Basically, I come and he goes. Well, he went alright… without leaving me any information on his classes, and (dun dun duuun) without a key to the apartment. Jump to: Me standing on the landing with all my things and no way to get in. I’ll spare you the details of that day, except to say that it just kept getting worse and worse. When I finally did open the door a few hours later, it was to a scene out of a horror movie. RJ had basically just packed the things he wanted and left everything else. Cigarette butts, spilled cat food, dark dried stains on the floor, piles of stained bedding… despite the custom of not wearing shoes indoors I ended up throwing out the first two pairs of socks I wore inside.
Luckily this was on the Saturday of a four day New Year’s weekend. Translate: plenty of time to get on my knees and start scrubbing, but what a way to spend a holiday! With a faucet-like head cold to top it off, the whole scene was a nightmare.
Around five in the evening of my second day of cleaning I hear a knock on my door. I lay the scrub brush on the floor of the bathroom, hastily wipe my nose on the nearest piece of tissue and try to pull the dish gloves off my hands enough to be able to open the front door. My neighbor and co-teacher Jennifer is there, eyes straining past me into the apartment, searching for confirmation of the rumor that RJ had left the place a mess. Her eyebrows go high and stay there when she sees me; I must look pretty insane after two days of intense cleaning, nose-running and general fuming.
Jen had heard that I was interested in learning Korean cooking, and is here to invite me to another co-teacher’s house to make kimchi jjigae. My savior! A break is exactly what I need, not to mention some spicy Korean soup to clear my sinuses. I literally can not get out the door fast enough to meet John Stephen and Jen at the market for supplies.
Now when I say market, I mean the grocery store in the subway station. I know. Apparently there are many other markets and grocery stores in Seoul, but I have yet to go to them as this one is the most convenient. It’s your basic small grocery store, stocking everything from cleaning supplies to snacks, to a small selection of alcohol and some meat and very expensive produce. That is definitely one thing to note: produce is the most expensive food group here by far. And the selection is slim to none, mostly onions and sweet potatoes, with some imported tomatoes and peppers. Lettuce is nearly impossible to find, and ridiculously expensive when you do. So much for salad.
When they don’t have exactly what we want, John Stephen suggests we go to the outdoor market for the bulk items, like kimchi. We step out of the subway station, go down a main street I pass every day on my way to school, and turn right into a narrow alleyway. Suddenly we are in a different world, surrounded by late-night shoppers, stalls of salt fish, buckets full of grains, garlic, ginger, chilies, literal wooden tree stumps used as chopping blocks covered in fish scales with a cleaver slammed into the center like something out of a morbid still-life painting. Everything from the last two days of depressive scrubbing evaporates instantly. THIS is the foodie Korea I want to see! The stalls are so close together, their awnings nearly touching overhead, and each has thick sheets of plastic hung over the entrances with an overlap for a door to keep in the heat. I’m not sure if Jen and John Stephen are entertained or thrown off by my enthusiasm, maybe just surprised. The smell of ground ginger is in the bitterly cold air and I am in culinary heaven.
The old lady that John has bought kimchi from before has already closed her stall, so we go in search of another vendor. I find a man with two tables covered in kimchi of various kinds: cabbage, green onion, radish, cucumber, grass… you name it. I don’t see the kind we are looking for, however, so I ask him as politely as I can, bowing, “Kimchi jjigae kimchi, juseo?”
He nods, and reaches under one of the tables to pull up an enormous bucket. Motioning to me with his hands to ask how much I want, he winds the opening of a clear plastic bag around a wire loop, slips kimchi in through the opening, and pulls it back off, tying it with a clean swish. Simple. Effective. Korean. He holds up four fingers, I hand him 4,000 won (about $4), he hands me a football-sized bag of kimchi, and the deal is done.
Back at John Stephen’s apartment, we slip off our snowy shoes at the door and Jen and I sit on the floor as John starts to prepare the meal. I’m taking copious notes on my iPhone until I realize that kimchi jjigae is really incredibly easy. If you like kimchi and can find a decent variety, you should definitely make this. It is spicy (depending on your kimchi) and tasty and filling. Oh, and CHEAP.
What you’ll need:
Some pork cut into 1 in. cubes
Pork or beef bouillon or seasoning
First, sauté the pork in a deep pan until mostly cooked. Don’t get it too brown or overcooked or it will be tough. Add your kimchi, mix, and cook until everything is heated through. Fill the pan with water so that the kimchi is pretty much covered, add a small amount of bouillon/ seasoning, cover and simmer for about 15 minutes. Stir well, then cube your tofu and layer on top. Cover again and simmer for another five minutes. Kimchi jjigae!
As the kimchi is really the main ingredient, I’d only recommend making this in the States if you can find some good kimchi at a local Asian market. If you do stumble on some, make this immediately. In a Korean restaurant it is served in a hotpot, literally boiling like lava and much too hot to eat at first. Torture… the smell is so appetizing that I always burn my tongue anyway. It is also always served with rice, which is delicious to mix in to soak up the broth. Also recommended: Soju. Kimchi, soju, rice. TIK.
This is Korea.